Monday, November 29, 2010


"When the head is rotten, it affects the whole body."
- Asif Ali Zardari

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


The New Yorker
April Bloomfield's Gastropub Revolution


22 November 10

One night in March of last year, Jay-Z showed up at the Spotted Pig, on West Eleventh Street, with his wife, Beyoncé, and another couple. Jay-Z, an investor in the restaurant, and a frequent patron, wanted the smoked-trout salad, but the kitchen was out. He and his group settled on the house specialty—burgers, which the restaurant’s chef, April Bloomfield, serves one way: char-grilled, on a brioche bun, topped with crumbled Roquefort. Only Lou Reed, a fixture in the neighborhood, is allowed to have his burger with onions, and that is owing to precedent: an awestruck employee took his order one afternoon when Bloomfield was out. Mayonnaise is forbidden. The condiments policy has long been a subject of contention between Bloomfield and her business partner, Ken Friedman, who schmoozes while she cooks. He dispenses surreptitious dollops to favored customers from a jar of Hellman’s that he keeps hidden on a high shelf.

The Spotted Pig opened in February of 2004—New York’s first gastropub. It is a nookish place, crammed with all manner of porcine paraphernalia and presided over by offbeat waiters and bartenders. “If you’re going to spend an hour and a half with somebody, it should be somebody kooky,” Friedman says. New Yorkers didn’t quite know what to make of it. Was it a bar with good food? A restaurant that was fun? In any case, it was an immediate hit, a seat at one of its cramped tables so coveted that Frank Bruni, in a mostly admiring review in the Times, deemed the place a “gastromelee.” Message boards abounded with proudly masochistic anecdotes about what one blogger called the “hipster bloodsport” of trying to get in. (A pregnant woman told a waiter she couldn’t have the blue cheese, and, she wrote, “he promptly barked at me, ‘Yes you can, it’s ricotta you can’t have.’ ”)

Along with the food and the atmosphere, the restaurant’s clientele has helped to make it a success. By December, 2005, USA Today had published a story about the place headlined “WHERE STARS ARE SPOTTED.” Friedman recalled, “Every night there was some guy saying he was the biggest proctologist at Mount Sinai jabbing his finger in my chest.” A Chasen’s on the Hudson, by way of the Thames, the Spotted Pig is a place where normal people go to feel like celebrities and celebrities go to feel like normal people. Those who are not Jay-Z have been known to spend hours waiting to be granted a tartan-covered tuffet. Sometimes they want to be cool. Sometimes they want a really good cheeseburger.

One of Jay-Z’s friends wasn’t sure about the Roquefort. Bloomfield hates to leave the kitchen, but Friedman dragged her to the table, where she prevailed upon the friend to have the dish the way she had intended it.

“Who’s that golfer dude you made me meet?” Bloomfield asked Friedman later.

“He’s not a golfer,” Friedman replied. “He’s Kobe Bryant.”

“Oh. How did he like his burger?”

Bloomfield—five feet four, with a compact build and a pugnacious chin—is the food world’s oblivious savant. Her single-mindedness in the kitchen has propelled her from Birmingham, England, where she grew up on a diet of fried-egg sandwiches and steaks “that would come out a little gray,” to the apex of New York City’s restaurant scene, where she is renowned for her brawny menus, teeming with trotters and terrines. This summer, Saveur held a barbecue, to which prominent chefs contributed various dishes. Bloomfield’s was a chickpea-lentil-and-feta salad. “The Village Voice said something about ‘Why did the Queen of Meat do a salad?’ and she answered, ‘I like salad,’ ” Friedman recalled. “That was kind of a ‘Rain Man’ thing to say.” Bloomfield doesn’t swim; she doesn’t drive. She has a Michelin star for the Spotted Pig and one for the Breslin—a dark, boozy restaurant that she and Friedman opened last year in the Ace Hotel, on West Twenty-ninth Street—but she has never been to Paris. “It’s pretty lame,” she said one day. “But, you know, I’m a girl from Birmingham. What am I going to say, ‘I’ll have that right there’?” she said, in a jacked-up Brummie accent, pointing to an air menu.

Most days, Bloomfield wakes up around nine o’clock. She wallows in bed for an hour or two, with a cookbook, or a recipe she’s fiddling with, and a glass of PG tips. (She likes it milky, without sugar, and just hot enough to scorch the back of her throat.) Around noon, she arrives at the Pig or, more often, the Breslin, where she stays until midnight. On a sunny afternoon in late spring, Bloomfield was holed up in a plaid-curtained booth at the back of the Breslin’s dining room, rustling through a sheaf of papers stained with olive oil. She was dressed, as she usually is, in a black Pig T-shirt, black Dickies, and Birkenstock clogs. Her hair, the color of gingersnaps, was scraped into a bun. She was just back from Sydney, where she had appeared at a food-and-wine festival, but her skin was as pale as gooseflesh. I asked her how the trip had been. She pulled out her iPhone (apps: Epic Chef, zombies, vampires, ninjas, World War, iMobsters) and showed me a picture of her sous-chef sprawled on his back in the sand. Her cooks had surfed, she had watched.

Then she launched into an aria on Australian cookies: “Do you know what a Tim Tam is? It’s two pieces of chocolate filled with cream and encased in chocolate. You bite the Tim Tam, and then you dunk it in the tea, and then you suck the tea from it, and it goes all mushy in your mouth.” Bloomfield’s enthusiasm is as boundless as her interests are narrow. One day, during a trip to London, she handed me her iPhone and told me to listen. I didn’t hear anything. “Take it in,” she said, putting the phone to my ear, like a conch shell. “It’s just amazing.” She had recorded the gentle hum of conversation in a pub, to use as a sort of lullaby.

Bloomfield was working on a fried-chicken special for the evening’s menu. The inspiration was some buffalo wings she had eaten at the Waterfront Ale House, a bar in Murray Hill. (It’s close to her apartment.) “Their chicken has a really great sort of fruity habañero taste,” Bloomfield said. Her take on the idea was intense, a concentration, rather than a refinement, of the original’s punch. She had chosen to fry a breast and a thigh in duck fat and serve them with a salad (blue-cheese dressing, red onion) and hot sauce (habañero, tomato, vinegar, butter). Someone brought a platter of the chicken for Bloomfield to test. It was delicious; the batter had an almost caramel flavor. Bloomfield could barely admit that she had anything to do with it. “These poussins, oh, my goodness,” she said. “They’re actually really hard to fuck up. They’re unfuckable. You can’t fuck them up.”

“What’s the most fuckable?” I asked.

“The simple stuff.”

Bloomfield’s seemingly unfussy food has been fussed over a great deal. “Her Greek salad almost ruined my life,” Katharine Marsh, a cook at the Breslin, said. “One summer, I had to get to work three hours early every day and go through hundreds of tomatoes to find the perfect ones. She wanted every salad to have perfect variety of color, and each color tomato cut on a different angle, to give height and depth on the plate.” Her cooks have come up with a name for her style of cooking: “anal rustic.”

Bloomfield’s talent lies in execution, not experimentation. The most appalling thing she has ever seen in a restaurant was a Caesar salad stuffed into a hole hollowed in a country loaf. Because her food is not fancy, it has to be perfect, like a pair of jeans. J. J. Goode, who is helping her write a cookbook—“A Girl and Her Pig” is the working title—told me, “When April’s making a salad that has nuts or capers or whatever in it, she’s always saying that she wants there to be just enough so that you don’t have to try too hard to find one but not so many that you’re not excited when you come across one.” Bloomfield loves a broken hard-boiled egg, but not a sliced one. She treats herbs as if they were truffles. “Food’s delicate,” Bloomfield said, at the Breslin, picking through a bundle of black mint. Her thumb and forefinger formed a little pincer, which she wielded with a crablike economy of motion. “You have to handle it with finesse. You can’t just be a big ogre.”

In a blind taste test, you could identify Bloomfield’s food by the blasts of salt and lemon. It is not for the faint of palate. “ ‘Copious’ is a word I like to use when buttering my potatoes,” she told me. But in the kitchen she is as composed as her cooking is brazen. “There’s not too much ‘you wanker’ this or ‘you fucking idiot,’ ” she said. “It’s a waste of time.” Still, she projects such quiet disdain for sloppiness that “half-a-job Bob”—her biggest insult—stings as much as any bleepable tirade. If David Chang’s band of renegades are the Red Sox of the New York restaurant world, Bloomfield’s cooks are the Yankees, square and conscientious. When I asked her what kind of people she likes to hire, she replied, “Nobody weird. Nobody with dreadlocks.” She paused a minute, and added, “Well, no white guys with dreadlocks.” Her cooks wear black pants and black shoes. “People with chile peppers on their chef pants shouldn’t be allowed in the kitchen,” she said. When Bloomfield peels a carrot, she holds it out in the palm of her hand, like sheet music. Her posture is as correct, and her expression as intent, as that of a girl about to play “Chopsticks” in a piano recital.

Bloomfield was born in 1974. Her stepfather, Phillip, was an engineer; her mother, Maggie, used April’s room to paint pillboxes and bonbonnières for the enamel company Halcyon Days. “We had to make sure there was never any dust in the house,” Bloomfield recalled. The family ate curries and roast dinners. Maggie was not a tremendous cook. “One day, she got these pig’s trotters from a neighbor,” Bloomfield said. “She put them on the stove all day, and by eight or nine they were stinking up the house. I remember the stiff hoof and the sliced carrots. She put it all on a plate with a little bit of the pot liquor. My dad’s like, ‘Right, I’ll go to the chippy.’ ”

The family was solidly working class. At one point, they lived in subsidized housing; one year, Bloomfield went to stay with her grandparents. (She loved her nan’s Brussels sprouts, boiled and coated in butter, and her granddad’s porridge, not too watery and not too thick.) Her childhood was one of modest pleasures. Bloomfield recalled, “I think of England in the summer—my mum sunbathing, me picking the odd strawberry or playing with worms and ants, making mud balls.” As a teen-ager, Bloomfield became a club kid and an amateur d.j. (her handle was Scima D). She spent a lot of time in the Prince of Wales, her local. Later, at her favorite pub in London, she drank Carling’s and smoked and climbed up and down a big column that stood in the center of the room like a fire pole.

When she was sixteen and it came time for her to choose a career, she decided to become a policewoman. After missing the deadline for the entrance exam, she followed her two older sisters, both cooks at the time (one now works in real estate; the other is a cook in a pub), and enrolled at Birmingham’s College of Food, Tourism, and Creative Studies.

People love to ask Bloomfield what it feels like to be one of the few famous female chefs, but her choice of vocation was more a practicality than a political statement. “I don’t think of being a woman in an industry of men,” she told me. “I didn’t walk into the kitchen and go, ‘Ooh, I’m a girl!’ I didn’t get into my chosen profession. I wanted to be good at something.” Still, I did hear her telling her friend Jessica Boncutter, the chef and owner of Bar Jules, in San Francisco, how pleased she was that some of the women in her kitchen were “wiping the floor” with their male counterparts.

In a field of divos, Bloomfield is humble, praising her competitors and punctuating her correspondence with emoticons and “x”s and “o”s. I once asked what dish I might cook for a visiting friend, and she replied with a two-hundred-and-twenty-one-word text message. “How about a roasted pumpkin and pheasant salad with pomegranates parmesan and balsamic!” she began. “Yum so full of flavor and you can do everything ahead!” She continued, “OK so find some nice hearty salad greens like arugula trevise and pumpkin/squash. I like onion squash or delicata. Chop up into rustic but good textured sizes this will give your salad air and Elegance.” A few days later came another text. “Hows your bird? Did you start yet? You can call me anytime hope your having a wonderful weekend x.”

Despite her sweetness, Bloomfield can be scrappy when the occasion requires. One night, shortly after the Breslin opened, a group of “guys from Jersey, or whatever, in shirts” complained to their waitress that they had seen Bloomfield’s cooks, in the restaurant’s open kitchen, tasting the food with spoons. The waitress told Bloomfield. “Just before they left, I kind of puffed up my chest,” Bloomfield recalled. “I said, ‘Come here.’ They all came over, and I started in on this one guy—his two friends completely ran away. I told him, ‘You know what, it’s really fucking hard working in a kitchen. If you don’t think we should taste our food, then you shouldn’t be eating in this restaurant.’ ”

Bloomfield, who once worked cleaning hotel rooms, is not above drudgery. She chops onions like a scullery maid. Even her trash is pristine: one night, I watched her fish around in a compost can before finally extracting a rubber band. “Consistency is the No. 1 priority for me,” she says, over and over. She wants every cheeseburger to be exactly the same, down to the crisscross marks on the bun. Where Friedman seeks novelty, Bloomfield thrives on routine. “April taught me how important it is that every day is Groundhog Day,” Friedman said. The chef Tom Colicchio, of Craft, said, “It’s refreshing to me to see someone succeed who doesn’t think the only way to get ahead is by backstabbing and hiring a publicist and going out there and getting drunk every night and getting on Page Six.”

At the Breslin, around four-thirty, Bloomfield was sweating over a pot of braising lamb. Pink-faced and squinting, she had slung a white dishtowel over her left shoulder. One of her cooks had begun the braise earlier, but she had found his effort timid and started over. “I did mine a little more chunky than he did, so it doesn’t disappear as much,” she said. “Since it’s spring, I want the tomatoes a bit more light and brothy, instead of stewy and jammy. I don’t want it like a red sauce.” She turned to a pot of vegetables on the next burner, tossing in a cascade of salt. With her towel, she began scrubbing down a set of stainless-steel cabinets near the pass. “If you’re working in a shithole,” she said, “then your food’s not going to come out looking pretty.”

The first order arrived just before six o’clock. “Two chips, one scratch,” the expediter shouted, and the kitchen set to work on two orders of fries and some pork scratchings—deep-fried bits of pig skin served, folksily, in a plastic bag. Things were smooth, and slowish, for most of the next hour. Around six-forty-five, Bloomfield stationed herself at the pass. Cooks approached and wordlessly presented their dishes, like ring bearers at the altar.

“Replate it and make it look a little tastier,” she said to a guy with a saggy escarole salad. She rejected a side order of mashed potatoes for not being hot enough. “This is dirty,” she said, when she noticed a bit of juice on the lip of a bowl of cockles. At the height of the dinner rush, Bloomfield approached a lagging cook who was frying chicken livers, and stood behind him with her arms crossed. After a minute, she picked up a pair of tongs and turned over one of the livers. The underside was pale. Bloomfield grabbed the pan, marched over to a trash can, and silently emptied the pan’s contents. When someone ordered a bar snack of boiled peanuts, she inspected the facets of each one—a jeweller assessing stones.

By eight o’clock, the dining room was full. It was a young, cocksure crowd. The room was loud and dark. The topography of the Breslin—shrouded banquettes; a large oval table for groups; a balcony with a few tables that overlook the action, like opera boxes—is purposely higgledy-piggledy. The idea is that, in a seductive room, you should not be able to see every seat from every other one. When someone once remarked, “I’ve never seen a child in one of your restaurants,” Friedman replied, only half-jokingly, “We don’t allow kids.”

Friedman, sunburned and tall, was circulating around the room in a rumpled surfer’s shirt. The Breslin doesn’t take reservations, but a note tacked to a bulletin board in the kitchen listed ten or so V.I.P.s who would be coming in that night: some wine merchants, Frank Bruni, “Iggy the Cop.” None of them were Bloomfield’s. Halfway through the service, she went downstairs, to the prep kitchen, to check on the burgers. The ones at the Breslin have been as breathlessly exalted, among Manhattan’s meat lovers, as those at the Pig, but they are made with lamb instead of beef, and feta instead of Roquefort. (Bloomfield’s gnudi, little butter bombs of ricotta and sage, also have an avid following. A Spotted Pig regular, Don PV, wrote a tribute song called “Ode to Gnudi” and posted it on the Internet: “April / Your Gnudi Is Delicious / On My Tongue.”)

A cook named Hagar unveiled a hotel pan jammed with patties that had been made a few hours earlier. “They don’t have that bright-red bloom to them,” Bloomfield said. “When you make burgers, it’s good to let them rest for a bit.”

Bloomfield plopped one of the patties on a grill. “These are not good, I can feel it already,” she said. “They’re too tight.”

Once the burger had charred, she cut it open, flaring her nostrils in concentration, and scooped through its red center with an index finger. She held the halves, one in each hand, and stared at them.

“It’s kind of dry. Not enough fat,” she said.

Next, Bloomfield tried an older patty, from another hotel pan.

“Look, these are better already!” she said to Hagar. “See how the juices are much brighter?”

Bloomfield grilled the patty for a few minutes, and took it off the grill.

“Oh, the suspense!” she said as it cooled.

She took a bite.

“It’s better,” she said. “But I still think it needs a little more fat.”

The Spotted Pig was almost the Prodigal Pig. “I was going to call it that, and then everybody said the same thing: ‘What does “prodigal” mean?’ ” Friedman recalled. “I thought, Well, my friends went to college and stuff, and if they don’t know what ‘prodigal’ means then nobody does.” Friedman, who is fifty-two, grew up in Los Angeles. He attended Berkeley, where he was an art-history major and a member of a band called the Eggs (they fried eggs onstage). He dropped out junior year to become a concert promoter. In London and New York, he worked in the music business “for a hundred years,” managing such bands as the Smiths and UB40 and, later, scouting talent for Arista. Part of his job was to entertain artists, and he became a regular at many of the city’s best restaurants. (After seeing one of his expense reports, Clive Davis, Friedman’s boss at Arista, told him, “From now on, I don’t want you to go to any restaurant that starts with ‘La’ or ‘Le.’ ”) For years, Friedman’s many friends, conscious of his passion for food and wine and public assembly, had urged him to open his own place; some of them—including Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, and Michael Stipe, of R.E.M.—said they would invest. “I finally thought, Look I’m forty, I don’t love music anymore, I should do this before my friends stop offering,” Friedman said.

Friedman, a hyperactive charmer, has been going out seven nights a week for three decades. Over the years in New York, he had got to know the chef Mario Batali. “I was always bringing rock stars in, and Mario’s such a starfucker he’d befriend us,” Friedman said. In 2003, Friedman told Batali that he was planning to open a restaurant. Batali, along with his longtime business partner Joe Bastianich, signed on as an investor and an ad-hoc consultant. “He said, ‘Don’t pay me—just don’t make the same mistakes a lot of restaurants make.’ ” Most important, Batali told Friedman, was to figure out what he was looking for in a chef.

“I want something kind of punk rock,” Friedman told him. “I don’t want another Italian-American guy who used to work for you. Let’s get a girl, maybe, or, like, a British chef. I want something the press is going to get a hold of.”

“Quit thinking about marketing,” Batali said. “Just get the best chef.”

A few weeks later, the British chef Jamie Oliver came to town. “So he calls his two New York friends, me and Mario,” Friedman said. “Mario says, ‘Let’s get Jamie to be the chef.’ ”

“You think he’d do it?” Friedman said.

“Probably not, but let’s get him drunk and see what happens.”

“I can’t do it,” Oliver told Friedman and Batali. “But there is someone I think you should meet. She’s a British woman.”

Bloomfield was working in fruitful obscurity as sous-chef at the River Café, an Italian restaurant focussing on impeccably sourced ingredients, which Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers opened on the Thames in 1987. Bloomfield was respected by her peers in London kitchens but little known outside them.

Her first cooking job was in the roast section at the local Holiday Inn. In 1991, Rowley Leigh, the chef and co-owner of Kensington Place—which was in the first wave of modern English restaurants, and a favorite of Princess Diana—hired her as a commis chef. “Her sister Tracey worked for me already,” Leigh recalled. “Then April came to work. She was the waifiest-looking thing, so tiny and thin and emaciated almost.” Bloomfield stood out for her hustle, but she could be prickly. Leigh recalled, “In those days, she got very impatient with other people’s failings and lack of seriousness and dedication. A lot of people in kitchens are very happy doing what they’re doing, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, and for April it was always the be-all and end-all.”

Bloomfield worked for Adam Robinson at the Brackenbury, where she mastered pub classics such as chowders and rib-eyes. “He’d used every little scrap of food,” she recalled. “He’d really make you scrape those bones clean.” She also worked at the French bistro Bibendum, under Simon Hopkinson, whose plainspoken “Roast Chicken and Other Stories” remains her favorite cookbook. She recalled, “I was petrified, and I didn’t want to get in the shit, so I pushed myself to do dishes I hadn’t learned.”

Bloomfield arrived at the River Café in 1999. Joseph Trivelli, the restaurant’s head chef, remembers her as a perfectionist under any circumstances. “We used to walk home absolutely smashed,” he said. “We’d stop at a kebab shop, and if it wasn’t good enough she’d be angry.” One night, Bloomfield ordered a shawarma, paid for it, took one bite, and chucked it in the dirt.

“I was very happy to have found the River Café,” Bloomfield said. It was the “finishing school” to her education. “I had this walnut tagliatelle one day, and it was like someone had hit me over the head with a cast-iron pan,” she recalled. Ruth Rogers said, “It was probably quite early that we knew that April was very, very good. She had been through tough times, had fought to get where she was, and it was very clear that she wanted to be a chef.”

Bloomfield was twenty-eight and had been at the River Café for four years when a friend of Jamie Oliver’s told her about the opening at the Spotted Pig. She had never been to New York City. She had never heard of Ken Friedman or Mario Batali. “I was really bluff then,” she said. “I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, tell him to call me.’ ”

Friedman called. Neither he nor Batali had ever tasted Bloomfield’s cooking, but Batali said that if he met her he’d be able to tell in fifteen seconds whether she was right for the job. (Friedman and Batali are at least as good at mythmaking as they are at spotting talent.) So, in the spring of 2003, Bloomfield flew to New York for a job interview that turned out to be something between a fraternity rush and a competitive eating event: tuna burgers at Union Square Café, dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai, lobster rolls at Pearl Oyster Bar, pastrami sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli, apple cider at the Greenmarket in Union Square. Friedman’s pièce de résistance was a blowout feast—“this ten-hour, like, eating fest” at Lupa, which Batali partly owns—that only Bloomfield seems to recall. “We had spaghetti with eels, which I’d never had before,” she said. “There was headcheese, on a slightly warm plate, so that when you picked it up it dripped off your fork. Then we went to Babbo and ate there, too—lifeboat squid with caperberries, beef-cheek ravioli, stuffed quail.” Bloomfield was in: “I’d never seen a quail tunnel-boned. It totally blew my mind.” Thanks to a missing fingernail and some scars on her forearms, she had passed the fifteen-second test. Friedman recalled, “Mario said, ‘It means she’ll sacrifice her body. She’s a star. I can tell.’ ”

Perhaps more important than what Batali said was that he and Friedman, the Barnum of burgers, kept telling everybody that he had said it. About two months before the Spotted Pig opened, the Observer ran a profile of Bloomfield. “Gastro-Pub Girl Comes to Town, Backed by Ken Friedman, Mario Batali—and Maybe Bono,” the subhead read. “She will understand the instant power—and pressure—that comes with the two-fisted distinction of being both the latest chef anointed by Babbo’s Mario Batali, and the culinary architect of a potential new dining concept in the city,” it declared. Without confirming that Bono was an investor, Friedman had managed to insinuate him into the conversation. Batali told the reporter that Bloomfield was “a hilarious ball-buster.”

Once Bloomfield had taken the job, she and Friedman went to work putting together the restaurant. Bloomfield spent the summer at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, whose proprietress, Alice Waters, she had admired since reading something in a Waters cookbook about not stunning the palate into unconsciousness. In California, Bloomfield acquainted herself with American ingredients; she ate a pluot, and, she said, “my eyes rolled back into my head.” After months of searching, she and Friedman settled on a site, at the corner of Eleventh and Greenwich Streets, the former home of the French bistro Le Zoo. Bloomfield bought a computer and opened an e-mail account, and while construction work was going on the partners e-mailed each other about what kind of food they were going to serve. “I wrote, ‘Some of my investors and friends are vegans, and I was thinking, like, a tofu hot dog,’ ” Friedman recalled. “She wrote back, ‘If you’re thinking tofu hot dog, maybe I’m not the girl for you. In fact, I’m not interested in tofu at all.’ ” From then on, Friedman butted out of the food.

Gastropubs had started cropping up in the early nineties, when a generation of young British chefs decided they’d like something more appealing to accompany their two pints of lager than a packet of crisps. In Britain, the term—“a queasy coupling of words,” according to Time Out London—has curdled, in recent years, into cheesiness. In a 2005 article, the chef Tom Norrington-Davies lamented the prettification of the “traditional boozer.” He wrote, “Whenever I hear the G word, I think of its Eighties equivalent: the ‘wine bar,’ ” and offered a guide titled “How to Spot If Your Local Has Been Gastroed.” Signs include laminated menus and hosts wearing Bluetooths. Gastropubs, his argument went, were simulacra of something that already existed.

In America, the gastropub carried no such baggage. Friedman’s flea-markety interiors (he decorated the Spotted Pig himself; for the Breslin, he worked with the design firm Roman & Williams) and Bloomfield’s homey lexicon (syllabubs, scrumpets, thrice-cooked chips) charm the American restaurant-goer. Bloomfield’s food pays tribute to her national and her class heritage, but it is not sentimental, trying to reconnect with some false notion of authenticity; nor is it kitschy, playing British food for laughs. You won’t find “Mum’s Mash” on one of her menus. She wants her food to be better than her mother’s.

Friedman and Bloomfield make an odd but symbiotic professional couple. By taking care of all the extraneous business that comes with running a popular restaurant—the kooky waiters, the angry proctologists, the celebrities, the press—Friedman spares Bloomfield distraction and inoculates her against restaurant-world bitchery. He keeps her pure. She keeps him honest. When the Pig opened, Friedman gave Bloomfield a ten-per-cent stake. “After a couple of years, I realized this was fifty-fifty,” Friedman said. “My friends and lawyers said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But I love her. She made me what I am.”

Friedman is the truant to Bloomfield’s cop, and the occasional clash of values arises. Once, Friedman invited a bunch of friends back to a secret rec room that he keeps above the Pig, and Courtney Love raided Bloomfield’s pantry. Bloomfield doesn’t spend a lot of time hanging out after hours—she prefers to be at home—but one night, after dinner service at the Breslin, Friedman persuaded her to join him and the chef David Chang at a banquette with some friends. After some boring conversation with a movie producer (“So, tell me about Birmingham.” “Well, it’s industrial”), some spirited conversation with Chang (“Fuck you, motherfucking asshole!” Bloomfield said, laughing, after he guessed, correctly, that her recipe for caramel popcorn included baking soda), and several pickleback shots (whiskey and pickle juice), Bloomfield was ready to leave. Chang, still full of energy, grabbed her wrists, handcuffing her to the banquette. She turned to Friedman with an entreating look. “Ken, I want to go home so I can do my job in the morning like the responsible citizen I am.” Friedman intervened. Bloomfield picked up her messenger bag and jumped into a taxi.

Downtown Manhattan is full of restaurants with adjective-animal names, mismatched chairs, and hearty menus. Friedman and Bloomfield can be touchy about the numerous imitators that the Pig has farrowed. “Everyone tries to do what we do, but no one’s done a good job,” Friedman said. Bloomfield, carrying some beans and purslane back to the Pig from the Greenmarket one day, fretted that the gastropub phenomenon had reached its saturation point. “It’s the people that ran with it and extended it too far,” she said. “In London, there’s a chain of ones called the Slug & Lettuce—or the one that just opened here called the Rabbit in the Moon. Why name a pub that?” At one point, Bloomfield told me how much she’d enjoyed, on a trip to South Africa, learning how to barbecue (“You do it low and slow, instead of, like, burning it to buggery,” she said). As we walked, I asked if she ever got the urge to try anything different, like molecular gastronomy. “I’d love to have a go,” she said. “I always feel like I want to call some chef and say, ‘Hey, can I hang out in your kitchen?’ ” Then she went inside and spent the afternoon butchering suckling pigs.

April Bloomfield is known for brown food: rib-eyes the size of bowling pins, meteoritic Scotch eggs, broad bald heaths of lamb shoulder strewn with bits of parsley. “Frankly, you can’t eat this stuff every day,” Alex Calderwood, an owner of the Ace, admitted. “We’ve had to ask for some salads.” (Bloomfield refused. “It was winter,” she says.) Still, she is a more sensitive and frequent manipulator of green things than many people acknowledge, and sometimes she’ll reverse the palette, finishing a bowl of creamed escarole with a crown of bread crumbs, or a mess of kale with chunks of bacon. Her Caesar salad, cold and pungent, is so lovingly built as to resemble a Jenga tower.

In the fall of 2008, Friedman and Bloomfield decided to add fish to the meat-and-veg rotation, opening an ambitious seafood restaurant called the John Dory. It occupied a vast, theatrical space in far West Chelsea, and had white tablecloths, a fluorescent-lit bar, a reservationist, and two huge globe-shaped fishtanks. The early reviews were excellent. A. A. Gill wrote that it was “a fish restaurant that’s English-inspired, in the sense that it goes down to the sea in waders and a sou’wester, not a leopardprint bikini and suntan cream. This is cod-fisted, fishy-fingered food, made with panache and a big mouth.” There were five types of crudo. The fish stew cost thirty-four dollars, but tables were booked weeks in advance. Then people stopped coming. Bloomfield recalled recently, “About four months in, it got bad.”

Bloomfield struggled to adapt. “I tried everything I could,” she said. “I made the menus simpler. We stopped brunch. Nothing worked.” The failing venture strained her relationship with Friedman. “The closest we ever came to being at each other’s throats was the John Dory,” Friedman told me. He continued, “Pretty early, we realize that no one’s hanging around at the bar. April kept saying, ‘Your job is to get people here.’ I’m texting all my friends, I’m talking to the blogs—nothing’s working.’ April said, ‘Well, how do we do it?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know how to do it,’ and she said, ‘Well, figure it out.’ ”

Once Friedman conceded the bar scene, the restaurant seemed halfhearted. In August of 2009, less than a year after it opened, Friedman and Bloomfield abruptly closed the John Dory. Both of them blame the location and its lack of foot traffic.

“We were talked into that space by Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich and Tom Colicchio,” Friedman said. Colicchio owns a restaurant on Tenth Avenue, Colicchio & Sons. Batali and Bastianich, who own Del Posto, nearby, were guarantors of the John Dory, and owed nearly seventy-five thousand dollars on the lease when the restaurant closed. “The John Dory was traumatic because we had to raise all the money ourselves, and we spent a fortune of our friends-slash-investors’ money,” Friedman said. “It wasn’t well thought out,” Bloomfield told me. “We should have come together more and talked about what our plan was. Part of it was spinning it as an English restaurant, and I didn’t want an English restaurant. In my mind, the food was always going to be Mediterranean.” Even now, Bloomfield has an almost allergic reaction to any mention of the place: her face turns red, her eyes water, her hands fly to her temples. Everyone’s internal map of New York, after long enough, becomes redacted by failures and breakups. Bloomfield still can’t walk on Tenth Avenue.

The Breslin was a safer proposition. Bloomfield and Friedman own half of it, and investors in the Ace Hotel, which furnished infrastructure and a built-in clientele, own the other half. “We went into the Breslin with newfound mania, because we realized we screwed up because we were trying to be clever,” Friedman said. “We re-created the Spotted Pig, which is what we know how to do well.” Friedman and Bloomfield are at points in their careers where the reputation of their restaurants outstrips the money that they make from them, and they are increasingly eager to reverse that ratio. In June, Friedman said, “The Hard Rock Hotel people were saying to us, ‘We want a Spotted Pig in the Hard Rock.’ And April’s kind of like, ‘Vegas?’ But she’s changing now that she’s trying to buy her first apartment. She’s realizing, ‘Wow, we can make some money here,’ and that her cooks need to have places to go when they’re ready to move on.”

In her spare time lately, Bloomfield has been making bread. What she really wants is a bakery. “I’m going to attempt my first sourdough this weekend,” she texted. “My mother has been working for bout 2 weeks!” When I wrote back that I didn’t know her mother was in town, she replied, “No my mother (it smells nice and fruity!) it’s my base for my sourdough, it’s what will make it rise! Er hopefully.”

What Friedman really wants is a tongue-in-cheek red-sauce Italian place. They both want a farm, where they can grow vegetables and raise livestock for use in their restaurants. A farm is attractive for two reasons. The first is that Bloomfield can’t always procure the calibre of ingredients she wants, since many of the city’s top suppliers are beholden to more established chefs. “They get all funny,” Bloomfield said. “I’m not Daniel Boulud.” The second is that a farm, in the hyper-competitive New York restaurant world, is a sign of clout and longevity, the breadbasket of an empire. Bloomfield and Friedman have been looking at land in New Paltz and Wassaic. “I don’t want to just do gastropubs, whatever they are,” Bloomfield said.

Perhaps because the Breslin was a spinoff of sorts, even its triumph did not entirely assuage the disappointment of the John Dory. When a small space became available in the Ace Hotel, this spring, Bloomfield and Friedman decided to open an oyster bar there. It would be casual, with copper counters and a curved raw bar, so that, Bloomfield said, “you can really see the different types of oysters instead of just some dirty old ice.” Bloomfield could revive some of her crudo recipes. Friedman could repurpose some of the nautical tat he had accumulated for the John Dory, which was beginning to overtake his apartment. “I order stuff, and when it arrives I’ve forgotten what I’ve bought, but since I bought it I know I’ll like it,” he said. “It’s like Christmas.”

If Bloomfield and Friedman wanted to be taken seriously as businesspeople, the oyster bar had to be a hit. Its success is critical to establishing their credibility as big-time restaurateurs, rather than twice-lucky publicans. “We’re going to great pains to show and prove to ourselves and the world that our original idea for the John Dory was a great fucking idea,” Friedman told me last week, as nail guns fired in the background. “If the place succeeds, we’ll be vindicated. But if it fails again it will always be this sad, depressing thing.”

In May, I tagged along for a meeting with the restaurant’s designers, Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch, of Roman & Williams, and a host of engineers and contractors. A guy with a graph—the restaurant’s construction budget—began the proceedings. “We have a five-million-dollar estimate here, and we’ve gotta get to one million,” he said. “I don’t want people to freak out. It’s just the process we have to go through.” The restaurant, which had not begun construction, was supposed to open at the end of August.

There was talk of grease traps, air ducts, and subcellar plumbing. Bloomfield wanted to hear it all. Friedman was late. Eventually, he appeared, wearing a madras shirt and high-top sneakers. “Ken, we’re five hundred thousand over budget, so this is where you need to pay attention,” one of the budget guys said.

Bloomfield and Friedman were going for what Friedman called an “homage to the Grand Central Oyster Bar” look, with subway tiles and patinated trusses. The largest item on the budget was millwork, at a cost of three hundred and forty-nine thousand dollars. The original blueprint had called for a hundred and forty linear feet of trussing. To save money, the group decided to reduce it to ninety.

“I’ll take a chance and bring up a taboo one,” Alesch said. “Is there any kitchen item that’s wildly fancy?”

Bloomfield said that her biggest-ticket item was her refrigerator, but that she had to have the one that she had specified. “Let’s talk about that thirteen-K juice section,” she said, running a pen down the bartender’s line items. “His juice section is more than my walk-in fridge.”

Alesch suggested that some of the lighting could go.

“I took everything out,” Friedman said. “There’s no lights. You have to use a flashlight. It’s the darkest restaurant in America!”

What about wine storage, then? Could they do without an impressive wine cabinet? Bloomfield and Friedman assented.

“Bottles are ornamental enough,” Friedman said. “Go in any Keith McNally restaurant and it’s just bottles. Let’s do everything he does.”

After the meeting, Friedman and Bloomfield were walking east on Twenty-ninth Street, trying to figure out what to call the place.

“The Oysterage?” Bloomfield suggested.

“Bivalve?” Friedman said. “The Piping Plover?”

Eventually, as if to prove something, they settled on the John Dory Oyster Bar.

They arrived at a dilapidated storefront that, by the end of the summer, was supposed to be their restaurant. Inside, electrical wires hung from the ceiling. “IQBAL WAS HERE” was spray-painted on a concrete-block wall. Bloomfield led me down a set of stairs to the area that would be the kitchen, which was to include a twelve-seat chef’s table. “We built it into the business plan,” she said. “I’m glad it’s not an entirely open kitchen. I’m done with the open kitchens—it’s a lot more stressful having people watch.”

In June, Friedman and Bloomfield, along with Amy Cole, the general manager of the Breslin, and Carla Rzeszewski, the restaurant’s wine director, took a field trip to California. They left J.F.K. on a Wednesday afternoon. Before the flight, Friedman wandered through the Jet Blue terminal—an urban beachcomber, filling tote bags with magazines. Bloomfield, with a backpack, and wearing a fleece zipped up to her chin, brought to mind a college athlete on her way to a big game. On the flight, Jet Blue was showing “Top Chef Masters,” the cooking reality show. An episode in which Bloomfield appeared as a judge came up on the seat-back screens. Friedman strolled the aisles of the plane, shouting, “Look, it’s Ape!”

The plane landed in San Francisco at about ten o’clock. Friedman called around, trying to figure out where to go for dinner. “This is terrible, this town!” he said, after learning that several of his selections were closing for the night. “The Spotted Pig is packed. Right now, it’s an hour wait.”

Part of the reason for the trip to California was so that Bloomfield and Friedman could meet Scott Boggs, whom they were considering hiring to help them start the farm. Boggs, who is thirty, turned to farming after cooking and butchering at Thomas Keller’s restaurant the French Laundry. For the meeting, he had chosen a new Italian restaurant in Napa called Oenetri. He was wearing a pair of smart-looking jeans and had a neo-lumberjack beard.

Bloomfield, who has an extensive knowledge of botany and husbandry, started asking Boggs about his vegetables. He mentioned that he was growing Little Gems, a delicate ridged lettuce that is popular in Britain but hard to find in New York.

“Ooh, Little Gems!” Bloomfield said, brightening. “Do they look sexy?”

Boggs, in a stab at conversation, asked Bloomfield what her fantasy kitchen toy was. His, he said, was a pasta extruder.

“I don’t know,” Bloomfield replied. “I’m happy with my pestle and mortar.”

After dinner, Bloomfield said that she had found Boggs impressive but that she wasn’t completely sold. “There’s only one thing that worries me about this guy—his hands are far too clean,” she said. “If he worked for Thomas Keller, he probably plants his seeds with forceps.”

The next afternoon, the group visited the land Boggs was farming, on twenty-five hundred acres in Napa. It was a hot day. Near a glinting lake, a klatsch of four pigs—two Gloucestershire Old Spots and two Russian boars—were wallowing in the mud under a cottonwood, oblivious of the horseflies dive-bombing their bristly hides. “Our pigs have the spa life,” Boggs said. Bloomfield made a beeline for the water. Friedman, attempting to pet some horses on the way to the pigpen, got shocked by an electric fence. He wandered off for a bit in a grove of olive trees. Eventually, he reappeared, juggling a couple of lemons.

“So this is the breed we had last night?” Bloomfield asked Boggs, pointing to one of the pigs.

The pigs shook and snorted.

“It was her sister,” Boggs said.

Boggs led the way up a little hill to a pen so that Bloomfield could see more swine.

She crouched in front of the enclosure. “Hey, you!” she said, beckoning to one of the animals. She reached through the barbed wire and stroked one of its ears. Boggs opened the gate, and Bloomfield—wearing flip-flops, turned-up railroad pants, a black T-shirt, and aviator sunglasses—charged in. It was sweltering. The pigs stunk. Bloomfield stood in the middle of a cloud of dust. She could have been at a cocktail party.

Last week—after a protracted cycle of teasing, speculation, and delay—the John Dory Oyster Bar was almost ready to open. Except for a broken kettle, the basement kitchen was functional. Canning jars, knife cases, backpacks, forks, invoices, and a stack of cookbooks cluttered a black leather couch. Refrigerators hummed. Amy Cole, the general manager, walked in. “Twenty-four hours ago, this place was a shit show!” she said.

Bloomfield stood at the crudo station, presiding over the hubbub in a state of pleasant, almost peaceful, expectancy. Josh Even, the restaurant’s head chef, hovered nearby. The evening’s work was a dry-run dinner for thirty people, mostly employees of the Spotted Pig and the Breslin (including Boggs, whom Bloomfield and Friedman ended up hiring). “I just want to take it slow, anyway,” Bloomfield said, of the postponed opening. “So that’s all fine and dandy.” She was whistling the chorus from Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro.” A cook from the Breslin came in with a beef-and-Stilton pie for her to inspect. “Tastes great,” she said, slapping him a high five.

Bloomfield was serving an abbreviated menu. “We’ll have lobster and Dungeness crab later,” she said. “Right now, I just want them to practice shucking.” She went through the dishes one by one: razor clams (“Those were a huge hit at the John Dory, so it would be kind of a shame if I didn’t bring it here”), Tasmanian sea trout (“I had this in Australia and thought it was the most amazing fish”), a bread soup, with shellfish and onions, called a panade (“This is something I had when I first went to Chez Panisse, so I wanted to do that”). “The whole menu’s lighter and more vibrant,” she said. “There’s not a lot of butter, not a lot of pork fat. One of the criticisms I got from the John Dory was that we used too much butter.”

She was silent while she fiddled with some pickled escarole. But a few minutes later she poked her head around the counter to the side of the kitchen where some of her cooks were stirring pan roasts and slicing rye points. “Hey, guys, do you think we used a lot of butter?” she asked.

“No,” someone responded.

“No,” Bloomfield repeated. “But that’s what people said. I really took that to heart. Even though I just don’t see it.”

Upstairs, the dining room was coming together. A pair of giant industrial light fixtures had yet to be installed, but translucent shell sconces and a mirror on the west-facing wall, reflecting Broadway, gave the place a glow. Butcher paper covered the windows. The fishtank globes, bubbling again, flanked the bar. High above it hung a carved wooden fish with long, spiny fins. Bloomfield, having followed the food upstairs, tilted her gaze upward. “That’s our John Dory, from the old John Dory,” she said. “We never got to hang it up there, so it’s nice to have it back.” Candles flickered, and the room was cold. The dinner had the hushed, lucky feel of a meal in a hurricane or a snowstorm.

Mite of Might

Monday, November 15, 2010


Welch ein Zustand! Herr, so spate
Schleichst du heut' aus deiner Kammer;
Perser nennen's Bidamag Buden;
Deutsche sagen Katzenjammer!

What a state! Lord, so late
Creep do today from your chamber;
Persians call it Bidamag booths;
German say hangover!